Movie Review: ‘PETER RABBIT’ – one hop forward, two hops back
Connor Bynum // Film Critic
With films driven solely by nostalgia dominating the box office these days, it’s only a matter of time before whatever intellectual property you cared for most during childhood gets adapted into a movie. This time around it’s PETER RABBIT. You know, that bunny with the blue jacket who steals food from an old man’s garden. It’s probably safe to say that Hollywood may finally be running out of ideas.
At a brisk 93 minutes, PETER RABBIT, thankfully, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Peter (James Corden) and his family of bunnies constantly break into Old Man McGregor’s garden to steal vegetables and run to the loving arms of their human protector, Bea (Rose Byrne), whenever they get caught. When McGregor’s distant young nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to take over the estate, he does everything he can to keep Peter and his friends out of his garden. What’s worse, he also starts to take a fancy to Bea. Peter then decides enough is enough and enlists his animal friends to run Thomas off of his land for good. Its story is simple and it wastes no time hopping to it. Still, it’s safe to assume that parents in the audience will be checking their watches more than once.
To the film’s credit, I’ve seen little to no effort to shamelessly plug its all-star cast in any of its promotional material. Alongside Corden are his rabbit sisters played by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley (Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail respectively). Also joining the cast is an unrecognizable Sam Neill in the role of Old Man McGregor. But the standout performance is undoubtedly Gleeson as he convincingly throws himself around the screen to battle computer generated rabbits. The man fully commits to the gag and commendably shows a comedic side that audiences really haven’t seen much of from his ever-growing career. Byrne is charming as the caring maternal figure for Peter and his family, and her chemistry with Gleeson appears to come effortlessly.
Early on, Bea is established as a struggling painter and is only ever able to paint quality work when she does portraits of her furry friends. Anyone who grew up with Peter Rabbit books will instantly recognize how these paintings mimic the art style of the books’ illustrations. This element is simply delightful.
Yet it’s almost as if the film goes out of its way to undermine what could have made it great. Whenever I began to feel like I was enjoying myself, an eerily out of place pop song flooded the speakers. I couldn’t help but remember how films like CHICKEN RUN took a similar premise of animals outsmarting a human antagonist in an English setting and made it all the more enjoyable and engaging with a fully blown orchestral score. Maybe it’s the grown up in me making this observation, but I clearly remember having no problem with such an approach as a child.
Another issue is the seeming over dependence on slapstick humor to keep viewers entertained. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with stepping on a rake. It’s a classic and it’s always a welcome gag. But when you make that five rakes, three bear traps, and a wheelbarrow down the stairs into yet another set of bear traps topped off with electrocution, it begins to feel mean spirited and excessive. I realize that such a situation sounds like comedy gold in writing, but in execution it often feels horribly mishandled and left me feeling sorry for the bad guy.
If you’re able to look past the heavy use of slapstick humor and ill-fitting pop music, you’ll find a surprising amount of heart in PETER RABBIT. The problem is that you’ll have to look past so much that it hardly feels worth the effort. There are better films out there the whole family can enjoy.
PETER RABBIT opens today nationwide.